Third time lucky for Etoile?
© AFP

Tunisia's Etoile Sahel have won every honour available to an African football club, except the big one.

On Saturday, the club from coastal city of Sousse begins yet another quest for their holy grail, hosting defending champions Al Ahly of Egypt in the first leg of this year's CAF Champions League final.

It will be Etoile Sahel's third appearance in the final in the last four years, but on the two previous occasions they were beaten.

Against Enyimba in 2004 it was by the closets of margins, as they lost 5-3 on a penalty shoot-out after a hard-fought 3-3 aggregate draw. Twelve months later, Al Ahly forced a goalless draw away in the first leg and then won 3-0 in the return in Cairo.

The two teams meet again 24 months later but Etoile are more experienced as they square up to the all-conquering Egyptian giants.

Five in a row
It will be a record-breaking fifth successive year that the Tunisians have appeared in a continental club competition final.

Flanking their two CAF Champions League final appearances was success in the 2003 African Cup Winners' Cup and a narrow triumph last year in the new-look African Confederations Cup. Etoile have also won the now-defunct Confederation of African Football (CAF) Cup and the African Super Cup in the past.

A chance now to complete their collection is eagerly awaited by a team whose path to the final was characterised by meticulous efficiency.

Etoile easily won their group in the league phase and overcame a gritty challenge from Al Hilal of Sudan in the semi-finals.

Many pundits feel that Al Ahly present more of a psychological hurdle than a stumbling block on the pitch for Etoile and it has been understandable that their coach Bertrand Marchand has spoken widely in recent weeks about a lack of fear of their Egyptian opponents.

It has been almost as if he is willing his players to believe they can conqueror an Al Ahly side seeking an unprecedented third successive Champions League triumph.

Making home advantage count
Saturday's first leg at the Olympic stadium in Sousse presents Etoile with a chance to build up an advantage to take to Cairo for the return leg next month.

Key will be the form of the teenage striker Amine Chermiti, who in recent months has emerged as one of African football's rising stars.

His two goals in the semi-final against Al Hilal displayed both intuition and a maturity well beyond his years. That much has also been recognised by veteran coach Roger Lemerre, who has already handed Chermiti, who only turns 20 in December, his first cap for the Tunisian national side this year.

But goals also come from the most unlikely quarters at Etoile these days. After the first seven matches of the new Tunisian league season, the top goalscorer is full-back Sabeur Ben Frej.

He has netted six times already for Etoile, including twice from the penalty spot, giving him confidence and form for the Champions League final.

It was Ben Frej whose failure to convert his penalty in the 2004 shoot-out cost Etoile the CAF Champions League title. Three years later, he may have the opportunity to redeem himself.